The Good Man Narrative: History and Representation in ‘Captive of Friendly Cove’
Captive of Friendly Cove by Rebecca Goldfield and Mike Short, published by Fulcrum, is a graphic novel based on the true story of British sailor John Jewitt, who lived as a captive of the Mowachaht people of Vancouver Island for three years at the start of the 19th century. The comic is largely inspired by, and draws upon, Jewitt's own memoirs of his captivity.
ComicsAlliance’s James Leask and J. A. Micheline sat down for an in-depth discussion of the book's themes, its intended audience, its treatment of history, and its representation of First Nations people. Their conversation begins with a discussion of context, and the assumptions made by the comic.
WHAT ASSUMPTIONS IS THIS COMIC MAKING?
James Leask: A lot of the book’s assumptions are about how it presents itself as historical. I’ll admit that I was leery about the book to start. I’m familiar with one of Fulcrum Publishing’s other works, the anthology Trickster, which was all about indigenous creators telling stories of their traditional trickster figures, which I greatly enjoyed. Because of this, when I heard that Fulcrum was doing another comic featuring indigenous characters, I definitely had reason to be optimistic.
But at the same time, I’m always leery of stories where indigenous people are the villains in the settler-colonial relationship. I want to make it clear that I hold no false images of indigenous people as uniformly heroic and peaceful, and there are certain facts of John Jewitt’s captivity that are relatively indisputable.
J. A. Micheline: Yeah, when I received the book from Fulcrum, I was really interested because I’ve actually been looking to read more stories involving indigenous characters and I’d already had a great experience with the publisher. They did Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, which I reviewed with CA’s Megan Purdy. That book had a lot to offer in terms of highlighting marginalized voices, so at first glance, I was looking forward to it. But then... well, then, I read the premise. And just like you, the setup of indigenous people as villains really made me wary.
James: I’m also aware of the risks of telling a story about Mowachaht people taking a white prisoner. There’s a chance --- even with an accurate portrayal --- of reinforcing readers’ (and pop culture’s) inaccurate ideas of indigenous peoples as aggressors on the “frontiers.” I was talking with Zoe Todd, Lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University, about this risk, and we agreed that this inherent riskiness actually made us wonder if this was a comic that needed to be made.
This trepidation I felt definitely increased as I worked through the introduction by author Rebecca Goldfield. Goldfield’s mentions spending a day --- only a day? --- with the Nuu-chah-nulth/Mowachaht people on Vancouver Island, learning about their culture and “interpretation” of Jewitt’s story, while ultimately hewing close to Jewitt’s point of view in the diary that the comic is based on.
The idea of Jewitt’s point of view as the dominant source and the indigenous point of view as the “interpretation” was worrying for me, because it seemed to set forward a bias toward one side of a conflict, where even though the ship’s captain is presented as being violent toward the Mowachaht, their reaction as presented by the book is to lie and then murder everyone the next day. It doesn’t necessarily read as balanced. To answer the question of assumptions, it makes the assumption that the written history by Jewitt is the definitive one.
JAM: Yeah, you know, at first when you said that there was no explanation for the Mowachaht’s behavior, I was like, “Wait, the Captain was horrible to them, though” --- but then I realized that I was also coming into it with the assumption that they had been treated badly by other traders. That is, I anticipated the explanation that we’re later given when we find out that there were a series of bad interactions with the traders --- but the average reader probably isn’t doing that.
You and I are coming into it with a historical awareness, so we fill that in even it isn’t given. We assume that we’re witnessing a single symptom of a larger pattern of abuse, rather than an individual act. I’d like to think that most readers would understand that when they read this comic, but I’m guessing they don’t --- so the framing is, as you say, a bit off.
James: It’s the other assumption the book makes: that the audience knows enough to critically analyze the history. While there’s some indication, when the attack/kidnapping by the Mowachaht happens, that it’s not entirely unprovoked, it’s not until about halfway through the book that the reader discovers the full context, which is a pretty familiar history of violence by previous European settlers.
In this context, the Mowachaht violence, while gruesome, takes on a much different connotation. Does the audience know enough to see this coming? I think there’s a risk of taking readers’ potential lack of knowledge for granted.
I think it’s the focus on Jewitt’s diary that causes the big problem here specifically. There are a few instances in the book where indigenous and settler points of view are presented simultaneously through thought balloons, and I think those moments create a more nuanced and, ultimately, empathetic view of the two sides of the settler-colonial relationship. When those balloons occur, there’s a sadness to the conflict that becomes more apparent because it highlights so much of the problem as being about communication.
If that kind of approach was used more evenly throughout the book, or if the POV of the initial conflict were presented as two-sided --- or even reversed to show a focus on the indigenous context for reacting to the chief being physically assaulted --- I don’t think it would have rubbed me the wrong way. As it stands, the inciting incident ends up looking, for about half the book, as an indigenous overreaction and not a much more understandable reaction to a history of abuse and violence. It might be hard to win back audience sympathies after you’ve shown them rows of “innocent” heads, you know?
The imagery of that violence gets balanced later when the Mowachaht POV is presented, but it should have been presented differently in the first place, I think.
WHO IS THE INTENDED AUDIENCE?
JAM: Audience is what I think about a lot with narratives about marginalized people. Sometimes you have books that are ‘for us, by us,’ so to speak, and other times, you have books that are specifically designed to educate or inform. An audience can be named outright, but usually it’s implicitly clear by the choices made in the work.
One of the choices that was most indicative for me was Captive using the word “slave" in the foreword and throughout he text. I have to say: I don’t think that word means what they think it means. Describing Jewitt as a slave sets me up for one thing, but in the text, I’m given something else entirely --- which actually does add to the indigenous-people-as-aggressors theme, now that I think about it. A prisoner is not a slave and a slave is not a prisoner.
James: The word has very specific connotations that I don’t think hold true to Jewitt’s situation. He was a prisoner, and the choice of terminology in the narrative and Inglis’ foreword definitely skews the work further. That, along with Goldfield’s description of the adaptation process, led me to have a lot of my cautious optimism of Captive sapped before I even actually started reading the actual story, and it continued throughout.
There’s an element of “shock” to it that I don’t think is entirely productive, and which seems to be there primarily for the effect of the term on a modern audience. Worse, I think it might have been easy to avoid, and that the book would have been better served by adapting the spirit of the relationship --- representing Jewitt’s changing role as a prisoner to a hesitant community member --- as opposed to the letter.
JAM: Also, just as an aside, I do wonder who the desired audience of the book is, just in terms of age. My guess is middle school / junior high, since the language is just elevated enough that it might be out of reach from anyone younger than 10, but the art is still pretty child-accessible.
There is a significant amount of violence in the book, though, starting with the Mowachat’s attack on the boat, but there’s also a lot more. The violence is a bit cartoonish and not driven home in the way you might see with more adult books, but it is something that I was aware of as I was reading.
WHAT IS THE ART DOING THAT THE TEXT ISN'T?
James: The decision to emphasize Jewitt’s written record (down to the epilogue of him telling his story throughout America) is hugely unfortunate and ripples throughout the book, which is a shame because the art is often telling a somewhat different story.
One of the bright spots for the book for me were some of the middle sections showing Jewitt’s actual relationship as a prisoner and later member of the Mowachaht community, where you can actually see the day-to-day life of the nation and when the relationships get a lot more depths. It’s easy to see, in these scenes, the fruits of the research by Goldfield and the book’s artists into presenting Mowachaht culture accurately and with care.
But, again, unfortunately, it’s all through the lens of Jewitt, which means it’s never presented fully. Important cultural context and observances end up being coloured more like “novel fun facts,” where I think the indigenous POV there would be different and more useful. John’s culture shock is narratively useful to some extent, but it can only ever be half the story, and it risks denying the Mowachaht narrative personhood.
IS JOHN JEWITT A 'GOOD' PERSON?
James: As presented, Jewitt is a model prisoner who is, a few incidents aside, generally beloved by the community, to the point of being given a home and offered the opportunity to marry. His fellow prisoner, Thompson, is a belligerent racist who harasses and assaults the Mowachaht community to the point of frequently needing Jewitt’s intervention to save his life, which were generally the points in the book where I thought to myself, “Oh, right, John Jewitt wrote this and made himself the hero.”
And again, without knowing more, such as Thompson’s records or the stories told by the Mowachaht, it’s hard to specifically find fault with it, but to me it read a lot like Jewitt framing himself as a “good” prisoner and white person and Thompson as a “bad” one, and I don’t think the book interrogates that enough by offering different viewpoints or by lingering more on Jewitt’s worse qualities.
After all, the climax of the book hinges on Jewitt “outfoxing” a community and man that gave him their trust, and the book never really questions the betrayal of that act (spoiler alert for something over a hundred years old), or risks muddying the good/bad prisoner image. Even the end of the book and how it resolves itself made me uncomfortable in how one-sided it was; Jewitt’s continual portrayal of himself as a saint is something that needed a critical eye from the book’s team.
JAM: Yeah, the more I think about the fact that Jewitt-as-hero, the more strange his last decisions seem in that framework. I mean, the guy decided to just send his wife off and then leave his kid behind? Not that that makes him a bad person, but it also does happen in a way where I expected more reflection about it if he is indeed A Good Guy.
And then, once I thought about that, I actually had bigger questions because I realized there really isn’t a narrative arc here at all! I think I was expecting something like --- and forgive me this example, James --- but, Pocahontas, maybe, where Jewitt learns to appreciate the Mowachaht culture and lives happily among them despite his earlier resistance. But instead, he ends up going home, leaving his wife and child behind, and then puts on plays about his experience?
Pocahontas has its own problems, but at least the point there is that we should embrace different cultures and learn as much as we can from them. Here, I don’t know what the point was --- which suggests to me that it is just to kind of to say, “look at this!”
James: I never thought I would be defending Pocahontas, but you’ve made the case.
WHAT DOES A MORE BALANCED VERSION OF THIS BOOK LOOK LIKE?
James: I think a more balanced version of the story builds off the better parts of the book --- and for all my criticisms, there are some! --- namely, the art. Mike Short, Matt Dembicki and Evan Keeling’s art is one of the high points, and it’s where a lot of the book’s research really shines through. It grounds a lot of the narration where Jewitt is describing the Mowachaht’s cultural practices, and it does it really respectfully and sometimes evocatively. Without it, I think it would read as an exotic travelogue, and instead those sections are the book’s best ones.
Moving outward from that, I think a book that was really rooted in the physical activities, and omitting the worse of Jewitt’s diary entries, would have grounded the book a lot more and made it more thoroughly enjoyable instead of only sporadically so.
JAM: Yeah, as tough as we’ve been on this, it’s not as though the project was immediately doomed just based on its premise. There are definitely ways that this could have been handled that would have offered a more representative slant. The creators could, for example, have supplemented Jewitt’s sections with a constructed counterpoint narrative. They’d already spoken with some Mowachaht and asked for their input --- so why not go a step further and have some of the Mowachaht help them create a secondary perspective?
Even if it’s not “historically accurate,” historical fiction makes these kind of leaps all the time. And, really, it’s better to have a reconstructed history from the Mowachaht perspective than a history that leaves their voice out.
James: Ultimately, the lack of that is what ended up defining a large part of my reading of the book. It’s hard not to read it and wonder what a different, more balance-minded version of it would have looked like.
There are moments --- the use of dual thought balloons to show parallel perspectives of indigenous people and Jewitt, or the scenes of village coexistence and friendliness --- where the book comes closest to accomplishing that, and it’s when I enjoyed it most. But, sadly, for me, the book’s faults were so built into the bones of the work that it overall was very disappointing.